QUESTION: WAS BOOKER WASHINGTON AN OBSEQUIOUS UNCLE TOM OR A CIVIL RIGHTS HERO? Answer: Civil rights hero, you idiot. For far too long it was fashionable in civil rights circles to view Washington negatively. Things have turned around somewhat in the last few decades, thanks in part to Louis Harlan’s biographies, and also thanks (more recently) to the work of black conservatives like Lee Walker, Carol Swain, and many others.

One thing that many people don’t know is that (among his many other accomplishments) Washington quietly raised the money to challenge black disfranchisement in the courts. This was typical of Washington: He was a man who got things done and didn’t necessarily demand the credit. Alas, the case–Giles v. Harris—didn’t work out as it should have. In an opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court essentially decided (5-3) that there was nothing it could do to prevent disfranchisement in the South. It was not the Court’s (or Holmes’) finest hour.  But the result doesn’t make Washington any less a hero.

Booker Washington’s 162nd birthday is today.